Brian McLaren, “Is Jesus the Only Way to What?,” Part 1

A Question Most Asked

It is rare that Brian McLaren directly answers questions which may shed light on whether he is orthodox or heretical in the essentials of the faith. His article reading of Jn. 14:6 is a case in point.

For purposes of clarity, I will reproduce the verse in a word-for-word translation in the following table. For ease of reference, I have included the definite articles with the nouns to which they are connected.

  

Table #1: Jn. 14:6

legei

auto

ho Iesous

ego

eimi

he hodos

says

to him

the Jesus,

I

I am

the way

kai

he aletheia

kai

he zoe

oudeis

erchetai

and

the truth

and

the life;

no one

comes

pros

ton patera

ei

me

di

emou

to

the Father

if

not

through

Me.

The context of this statement is the dialogue between Jesus and His disciples in the upper room preceding His crucifixion. Jesus is preparing the disciples for the fact that He will be leaving them for a while. He encourages them not to be troubled. His departure is crucial for their future with Him and the Father. Jesus tells them, “You know the way where I am going,” but Thomas does not understand. He responds, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” This is the point at which Jesus makes the statement recorded in Jn. 14:6.

Brian McLaren begins his reading of this verse with the observation

“It is one of the questions I am asked most frequently: ‘Do you think Jesus is the only way?’”1

McLaren is a master at avoiding direct questions. He has perfected the ability to change the parameters of a question so as to reshape into the kind of question he wants to answer, and yet he leaves you with the impression that he has actually answered the question you originally asked. He does that here as well:

“The question raises another question, actually: ‘The only way to what?’”2

Of course, McLaren knows what the question is. He admits this when he says:

“Sometimes Christians ask it as a test question, to see if I give the right answer.”3

Since he doesn’t want to alienate orthodox Christians with an unorthodox answer, McLaren must divert everyone’s attention from the real question to an alternate question that is less likely to reveal what he really thinks.

According to McLaren, Jesus is not the way to the eight noble truths or the four-fold path of Buddhism; He is not the way to Allah; He is not the way to a number of other “ways” enumerated by McLaren:

“But if you are asking about the kingdom of God coming to earth, what that means, how that can happen, and how we can participate in it, Buddha, Mohammed, and all the others will step back and Jesus will step forward.”4

Of course, the initial question was not about the kingdom of God coming to earth. If we assume that the initial question was provoked by Jesus’ statement in Jn. 14:6, the question was about the way to the Father. But, McLaren has masterfully rerouted the direction to a question, not of one’s ultimate destiny, but of one’s life on earth today.

And, the fact is, McLaren is simply wrong when he says “Jesus is not your man. Nor does he want to be.”5 McLaren makes this statement after his brief tour through various “ways.” If you want to learn about the eight noble truths or the four-fold path of Buddhism, “Buddha is the way, not Jesus.”6 If you want to learn about Allah, again, “Jesus can’t help you, but Mohammed can.”7 If you want to learn about the triumph of the proletariat over the controlling elites, or the id, the ego, the superego, or a number of other “ways,” “Jesus is not your man.” But that statement is a strange response from someone who professes to be a Christian. When Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” did He mean He was the truth only of things relating to Christianity? Can’t Jesus tell us about the eight noble truths or the four-fold path of Buddhism? Doesn’t He know about these things? What would Jesus tell us about the eight noble truths or the four-fold path? He would tell us that this is not the way to the Father! What would Jesus tell us about Allah? He would tell us that Allah is not the Father! What would Jesus tell us about the other “ways” to which McLaren refers? He would tell us what He told His disciples, “I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by Me!” Although McLaren hoped to avoid the direct question by diverting our attention, he has actually told us what he did not want us to know. For McLaren, Jesus is not the only way and is not in a position to comment on other ways. In McLaren’s view Buddha is a way. Mohammed can help you. You should talk to Marx or Freud. If you want to know anything that does not have to do with McLaren’s notion of the kingdom of God come to earth, then don’t come to Jesus, because He can’t help you.

The Way to Where?
Yes or No

McLaren asserts that many people have not answered the first question correctly because they have not stopped to ask second question:

“Many of us try to answer the first question without first answering the second, based on the assumption that the question means, ‘Is Jesus the only way to get to heaven after you die?’”8

But McLaren manages to avoid even his own question:

“Teasing out some of the other assumptions that lie beneath the question, one might rephrase it like this: ‘Is personally hearing about and believing in certain statements or concepts about Jesus Christ the only way to avoid burning forever in hell?’”9

Of course, this is not necessarily an assumption of the question. Orthodox Christians do not believe that salvation is “hearing about and believe in certain statements or concepts about Jesus Christ.” There are certainly statements and concepts that must be believed, but that is true of anything. Even in McLaren’s version of religion a person must believe that there is such a Person as Jesus Christ and that there is something called “the kingdom of God,” and one must believe this before one can “participate in it,” as McLaren puts it.

But for the orthodox, going to heaven is not simply a matter of believing certain statements or concepts about Jesus Christ. Going to heaven involves trusting in Jesus Christ as the way to get to heaven. Jesus told the Pharisees, “for if ye believe not that I am [ego eimi], ye shall die in your sins” (Jn. 8:24). McLaren says that the posing of the question about going to heaven is presented as “a kind of multiple choice examination, so that one must answer: a.) ___ No; b.) ___ Yes.”10 He goes on to reveal what he thinks many Christians secretly feel, (although he doesn’t tell us how he gained access to what many Christians secretly feel):

Although many of us Christians are secretly uncomfortable with answer b), we feel that we are being unfaithful unless we choose it, largely because of John 14:6 . . .”11

But this is not the only place where Jesus poses a yes-or-no kind of statement. In Jn. 3:18 Jesus said:

The one who believes into Him is not judged; but the one who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed into the name of the only begotten Son of God.

This is a Yes-or-No statement, it is “A” or non “A.” Either you believe or you don’t. As a result, either you are condemned or you’re not.

Jesus’ Message

McLaren identifies the question as one that expresses the idea of the “exclusivity of Christ,” which he characterizes as the notion that:

“all who do not consciously and decisively accept Jesus as their personal savior will burn forever in hell.”12

Revealingly, McLaren admits:

“That phrase raises concerns for me, because based on the Scriptures, I believe Jesus primarily came not to proclaim a way out of hell for some after death, but rather a way into a better life for all before death.”13

What is particularly interesting about this peek into McLaren’s own beliefs is not so much his concerns for what the statement itself means, but the fact that he constructs a false dichotomy to express his concerns. Earlier he implied that the Yes-or-No kind of multiple-choice examination was improper, and yet the way the question is phrased, there can be only one answer. It must be either “yes” or “no.” There can be no middle ground. Either Jesus is the only way or He is not. There cannot be more than one “only way.”

The way McLaren formulates his understanding of Jesus’ primary mission is yet another false dichotomy. He says Jesus came primarily not to proclaim a way out of hell after this life, but a way to a better life before death. Why must these be mutually exclusive? Isn’t it possible that Jesus’ primary mission involved both of these? Jesus came to proclaim a better life before death and a way to escape hell after death. But the way McLaren poses the issue implies that you can’t believe both. Either Jesus came to proclaim life after death or He came to proclaim life before death. But the Scriptures testify to the fact that Jesus came to do both.

McLaren declares, “His message was not about going to heaven after history, but about the kingdom of heaven coming to earth in history.”14 This is a very strange thing for someone to say who professes to be a Christian—Jesus didn’t come to tell us about how we can go to heaven after we die? Then what did Jesus mean by all that He said about heaven? We will consider this question later, but for now let us concentrate on what McLaren says. McLaren says Jesus’ goal was:

…not to constrict but rather to expand the dimensions of who could be welcomed into the kingdom of God, of who could be accepted in the people of God. So my understanding of Jesus’ essential message tells me that ‘exclusivity of’ should generally precede ‘the Pharisees’ or ‘the judgmental’ or ‘the hypocrites,’ and never ‘Christ.’”15

So, if there is no exclusivity of Christ, then does that mean that anyone who believes anything can be a part of the Kingdom of God? We will look at that question next week!

1 Brian McLaren, “A Reading of John 14:6,” http://www.brianmclaren.net/emc/archives/McLaren %20- %20John%2014.6.pdf (accessed May 30, 2008), 2.
2 Ibid., 2.
3 Ibid
4 Ibid. (emphasis in original).
5 Ibid
6 Ibid
7 Ibid
8 Ibid
9 Ibid, 2-3
10 Ibid, 3
11 Ibid
12 Ibid
13 Ibid
14 Ibid
15 Ibid

© 2008
Thomas A. Howe, Ph.D.
Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages
Southern Evangelical Seminary


Comments

Brian McLaren, “Is Jesus the Only Way to What?,” Part 1 — 3 Comments

  1. Wow. I think someone finally succeeded in nailing jello to a wall!

    Well, it was jello until he said this:
    “That phrase raises concerns for me, because based on the Scriptures, I believe Jesus primarily came not to proclaim a way out of hell for some after death, but rather a way into a better life for all before death.”13

    But even here the way he words things is ambiguous. He leaves room to insert “although he did do that” in parentheses after “for some after death,” hence avoiding the false dichotomy. But who knows?

    False dichotomy or not, to say Jesus’ primarily came to show the way to a better life before death is just not true. Paul said to depart and be with Christ is far better than to live down here. Peter died a martyrs death. John was banished. James was beheaded. Stephen was stoned. Many were tortured before they were killed. Abraham was seeking a heavenly city, and Hebrews tells us our citizenship is not on this earth but in heaven.

    There are warnings from Jesus about hell, and the promise of eternal life to all who believe. There is the lake of fire, and those whose names are not written in the book of life are cast in there, and this is the second death.

    I am getting creeped out by how McClaren downplays hell. It is a place of anguish and pain and separation from God. The gospel means we can be saved from this destiny by being found in Christ, by having our sins covered by His blood, by being found having a rightousness that is not our own, but His. A better life down here? Ignoring all of that? And what kind of a better life, considering there is warning of persecution and distress?

    I am creeped out because I wonder just how many people who are unbelievers will continue on their comfortable path toward eternal separation from God because McClaren so de-emphasizes the eternal state when he talks of the primary mission of Christ, and then they swallow it hook, line, and sinker, not considering there is “a heaven to gain and a hell to shun.”

  2. Dr. Thomas Howe does an excellent job of deciphering how McLaren’s brain works. I just finished reading McLaren’s “everything must change” (all lower caps…I guess that includes punctuation).
    When Howe says McLaren “doesn’t tell us how he gained access to what many Christians secretly feel,” he hit the nail on the head of what bothered me throughout McLaren’s book. McLaren takes a thought, or a personal experience of his own, and makes sweeping generalizations that this is EVERYBODY’S thought or experience. He is very lax with sources, if he cites any at all. And those sources are questionable in themselves.
    The other thing that Howe correctly perceived is McLaren’s exclusive focus on one element; that element being the liberal social gospel that certainly isn’t new. Throughout “everything must change,” McLaren throws away plenty of the Gospel in order to focus on his own agenda. Howe asks a very crucial question of McLaren when he asks “Why must these be mutually exclusive? Isn’t it possible that Jesus’ primary mission involved both of these?”
    Again, it goes back to McLaren’s cherry picking of Scripture, and then not even getting the cherry-picked verses right.
    I look forward to the next posts in the series. Thanks for writing!

  3. McLaren nattitude to John 14:6 is very similar to Rob Bell’s as expressed in “Velvet Elvis”. Rob’s view is that John 14:6 does not say there is only one way to God, but rather that Jesus the way to authentic life. He does the same as McLauren in saying the verse is about the present, rather than taking it in its context back to 14:1 where Jesus is encouraging them to believe in Him and the Father, because their future is assured in the house he is preparing. The passage is focussed on their future security, (which can then give them confidence in facing the present).

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